‘Think Ambitious Experiments’; Valuing Failure and Coaxing the Best Ideas Out of Us

It’s interesting how we create our best work. I recall as a young Washington Post sports reporter being told by my editor that a tennis article wasn’t good enough and angrily writing something great after. But that can’t work too often. From talking to a lot of industry folks, one thing becomes clear: The importance of giving people the space to try, fail and try again.

A musical version of New York, New York—the 1977 film—opened on Broadway recently. Its ultra-accomplished 96 year-old composer, John Kander has been talking about what inspired him and his late songwriting partner Fred Ebb to write the film’s titular song. (They also wrote Cabaret and Chicago, among other things.)

“We wrote 5, 6 songs for [the film] and among them was New York, New York, and we played them for [Martin] Scorsese and Liza [Minnelli]—and [Robert] DeNiro was over on a couch someplace. We didn’t actually see him,” Kander said in a video recently. “We played our songs, and Marty was very complimentary, and we were getting ready to leave and suddenly we saw an arm raise up. There was a very animated conversation, and Scorsese came back and in a very embarrassed way said, ‘Would you mind going back and taking another crack at [New York, New York]?’

“And Fred and I [thought,] of course not! We took a cab back to our office, and in 45 minutes wrote the New York, New York that you know. It has a lot of anger in it because we were really pissed off. [He smiled.] ‘Some actor is going to tell us how to write a song!’”

It’s hard to say that Kander and Ebb momentarily failed. But Kander does admit that DeNiro’s words made them write a better song.

Here are some thoughts on the importance of allowing for failure and how to coax the best ideas:

Normalize talking about failures. “Working with metrics is all about trial and error, adjustment and retrial,” Elizabeth Gamperl wrote in her Reuters Institute report. “Every failure is a step closer to success.” Said one editor: “We have as many open conversations about when things haven’t worked as possible without everyone getting really upset. That is not easy because people work incredibly hard in the newsroom. What lessons can be learned?”

Make failure safe. “You have to have the ability to put yourself out there and be willing to fail,” Heather Farley, now the CEO of Access Intelligence, once told us. “Fail fast and fail forward is my favorite motto.” What was one of the first things you did when you became CEO of Match? Sam Yagan was asked. “When I took over Match, I realized that they use data, but the expectation—which was always data-driven—was that tests will all succeed. It wasn’t built in a culture of failure. I compare never failing with not having ambition. [So the question became,] how do we let ourselves test out our intuition? The intuition has to inform what data you get.”

Learn lessons in success and failure. “If something [messes] up, you can look at your stats and figure out what went wrong,” said Kate Lucey, a former digital editor for Cosmopolitan UK. “Try new ideas—if they work, how can you expand them? If they fail, why did they fail and what have you learnt about your audience that you can apply to future work? It’s constant learning, constant adapting—and a constant headache… but it’s FUN.”

“Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos…” Tim Hartman, CEO of GovExec said at one of our conferences. “Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don’t see that, you have a problem.”

Don’t let the quiet ones stay quiet. “Have a think tank where you can bring people to brainstorm,” Elizabeth Petersen of Simplify Compliance told us once. “Every person has ideas but you need to coax them out. I like to brainstorm on the fly. I have introverts [on staff], and they need to be encouraged. To have a structured agenda is a great way to get people talking.”

Set benchmarks. “One of the biggest barriers to innovation is fear of failure,” Petersen added. “The information industry is changing so rapidly and there are so many unknowns. Even the most thoroughly researched product may not gain market traction. The key to developing a humming new product development engine is to be comfortable with risk and to set measurable (and transparent) benchmarks for product success.”

Allow for turbulence. “Embracing failure is easier said than done,” Anita Zielina, former director of news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, told us at BIMS a few years ago. “We like to win and are not so excited about failure. But the culture of failure empowers your team to experiment. If you don’t, you’re not going to have creativity in the room. Experimentation includes failure, and organizations need to live with that. There is no digital product development that doesn’t have unexpected turbulences. But it also allows for agility.”


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